Schools fare well in House budget, officials wait for Senate proposal

February 28, 2012

By Tom Corrigan

Local officials are taking a wait-and-see attitude toward budget and revenue news coming out of Olympia.

The state House of Representatives passed its version of a 2012 supplemental budget Feb. 21.

In total, the spending plan slices about $890 million from the current budget. While local school officials have been steadying themselves for budget cuts, the House plan largely leaves funding intact, Issaquah School District Superintendent Steve Rasmussen said.

However, Rasmussen quickly noted the state Senate must still act on its version of the budget. He didn’t say so, but the two plans almost certainly will need some work to blend them into one document, which still would need approval by Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Notably, the House plan does not include Gregoire’s suggestion to trim the school year by four days as a cost-cutting measure. Local and state school officials have come out firmly against that proposal.

One key feature of the House plan moves a total of $405 million in education payments from May and June of 2013 to July 2013. The change moves the payments from the current biennium into the next budget cycle.

“It’s a bit of gimmickry they’ve been using in recent years,” Rasmussen said.

He didn’t offer an opinion as to whether or not the move is a worthy one on the part of the state in the long run.

“It is what it is,” he said.

For now, a proposal to eliminate local levy lid lifts seemed more troublesome to Rasmussen.

The House proposal reduces funding under the heading of Local Effort Assistance starting in August 2013, though those dollars are not affected in the 2012-2013 school year, according to information released by the Washington State School Directors’ Association. As part of the LEA reduction, local levy lids would be rolled back by 4 percent starting in January 2013.

In the face of past cuts, the state Legislature allowed districts to put levy lid lifts before voters. Issaquah voters approved a lid lift allowing district schools to collect up to 28 percent of their overall budget locally. That’s up from 24 percent, according to Jake Kuper, district chief of finances and operations. Under the House proposal, Issaquah schools would lose those extra dollars. In the past, local officials described those added funds as critical.

Even prior to the House budget announcement, there was some potentially good news for the schools coming from Olympia. On Feb. 16, the state Economic and Forecast Council revised its previous revenue projections upward by $96 million.

“It has been a long time since I’ve heard good news on the economic front,” Randy Dorn, state school superintendent, said in a press release.

Dorn went on to argue those previously unanticipated dollars should mean no new cuts to basic education. To back up his argument, Dorn cited January’s state Supreme Court decision that ruled Washington still is not meeting its constitutional obligation to fund education.

“Not only should there be no further cuts, we should begin investing more in education,” Dorn said.

Locally, Kuper has been creating scenarios that had the state slicing local educational dollars anywhere between $2 million to $6 million.

“The state revenue forecast is positive news,” Kuper said, “but it’s not affecting my ‘what if’ scenarios.”

Like Rasmussen, Kuper said that it’s still to soon to know what the state’s final spending plan might look like. The current legislative session ends March 8.

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